Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors are probably pretty sick of how much the other party is discussed about in connection with him/them. Tonight justified the cosmic link, as Durant's 38-13 squad came into Oakland tonight to face off against Stephen Curry and the 45-4 Warriors, who came in undefeated on their home court.
Durant and Russell Westbrook form what is commonly viewed as the most potent one-two punch in the league, if only in terms of pure direct point production and visceral enjoyment. Their squad also occupies the third seed in the West, the stunted tertiary contender in a conference (league?) seemingly already gearing for a Warriors v. San Antonio Spurs conference finals. This is all to say that there was a lot riding on their performance tonight in a measuring-stick matchup — and that's not to touch upon the well-treaded rumors of Durant's free agency links to Golden State.
The first half saw great production from the Thunder's dynamic duo, lackluster production from their bench, both defenses being overwhelmed relative to both offenses, and a Golden State Warrior lead north of 15 at times — the magical (arbitrary) number that has all but guaranteed an eventual win during the Steve Kerr era. The Warriors ended with a 73-59 lead at the half.
The second half started off sloppy and a downright sluggish for a basketball game with Westbrook and Draymond Green on the court. Steph's shot was a hair uncalibrated on the night, and he had the awareness to look for driving opportunities, and generally use his gravity to open up open looks for Marreese Speights in the flat out of the PnR. Draymond had at least one turnover due to aggressive passing. Klay Thompson had a couple unawareness-related TOs of his own. Andre Iguodala fouled a shooting Durant behind the arc (the third time in the game a three point shooter was fouled).
On the other end, the Thunder were equally disjointed in parts. Westbrook and Durant turned a two-on-one, in which Green took himself out of the play by lunging to Westbrook, into a turnover. Despite this, they took advantage of the Warriors' miscues while the Warriors' own offense went toothless near the end of the quarter, resulting in what was an 18-point third quarter lead to dwindle to just eight, at 91-83. Oracle Arena was mostly slumbering during a rather lethargic quarter — no comment.
The Billy Donovan offense, by the way, looks superficially identical to the Scott Brooks rendition. Perhaps its simply the most effective offense one can run with two superstars and no other effective scorers — it is possible that that is the case. However I'm unconvinced that this is the reality, without ever seeing the Thunder at least attempt to blend in Durant and Westbrook into a motion offense. Much of the Thunder's offense comes from a PnR into isolation out of the resulting mismatch (or sometimes, just ISO regardless), punctuated every few real-time minutes by a Serge Ibaka shot.
Whether it was by design or simply because Andrew Bogut got into foul trouble that messed up his usual rotation, Kerr opted for a different unit to start the fourth quarter, replacing Speights with Bogut. It paid dividends defensively, as Bogut ended a couple defensive possessions with a takeaway (an inbounds block, a steal) and altered another (out-of-bounds block on Westbrook). Westbrook attempted to pry at the big man, putting him in PnR situations with Enes Kanter and getting the Warriors to commit as many defensive rotations as possible to cover the roll man.
ESPN has a bad habit of showing the offensive highlight, and not a questionable call on the defense.
Shaun Livingston once again bullied the smaller guard on offense in the post, this time against Artis Payne. He doesn't even get good looks, but like Kobe Bryant, he's so good at hitting bad shots. Turnaround fadeaway 16-footers are bad shots. Nevertheless, he hit three in the quarter for six points, all against Payne, all of fadeaway variety. Donovan went with Kanter to guard Livingston in response.
Westbrook is a sugar-high dynamo with hyperactive disorder in transition. A couple times the Warriors wings and smalls were jogging back after a made bucket, only to be surprised to find Westbrook with the ball, right behind their tails. He chased down his own missed three, and hit his two free throws that resulted from his drive to put the Thunder behind by just three, at 97-100.
Curry was convexly tepid, if not catatonic, on offense as he missed four shots within four feet of the rim. That typified the Warriors' offense in the second half, as it struggled in the halfcourt after an explosive first half. It ground nearly to a halt with the starters in. The Thunder ground down the Warriors' defense, fighting into a 104-104 deadlock with 3:30 left.
It appeared as if a perfect storm of Warrior vices were in a simultaneous crescendo: Green missing FTs, Curry going cold from everywhere, Andre mysteriously giving up driving lanes with no help in place, a soft interior defense. The Thunder ravenously took whatever the Warriors gave them, which was practically everything.
Then the Warriors did what they've always done in the Draymond Green era: they persevered, gnashed onto the lead with a vice-like grip. Coach Kerr went with the familiar "This if fun." line he busted out in last year's low-point in the Memphis series. The Warriors ripped a 6-0 run, capped by Klay Thompson's first three pointer.
Curry missed a dagger three, but eventually mustered up a bit of leftover magic to hit an ISO pull up over an outstretched Durant then hit a streaking Iguodala on a full-court pass to ice the game, 116-108.
As much as the Spurs matchup felt like the first iteration of a continuing chess match that will morph and possible completely switch fields throughout the regular season and post season, this game more or less displayed exactly how the Thunder are going to approach each game against the Warriors. They have not evolved their schemes or offensive system since they made the Finals so many years ago. Durant will be a world-beater. Westbrook will be spectacular. You know exactly who will do damage, how they will do it, and how much carnage they will inflict.
They're capable of beating the Golden State Warriors in a game. Their offensive system is not capable of beating an evolving Warrior coaching brain trust in a game of chess, as currently presented. There's still time, of course. Everything is fluid and changing until it is not.
Meanwhile, the Warriors added to their home court winning streak, taking sole possession of the all-time second place in terms of consecutive home wins with 41.